The birth father.
Too often, the birth father dangles from the birth mother’s corner. Sometimes he doesn’t even know she’s pregnant.
Adoption has evolved from the pre-WWI “taking in” of the orphan next door, to closed adoptions, to open, which became the norm in the early 1980s. “Open” ranges from exchanging annual letters to co-parenting. (We’re talking domestic adoptions here; international adoptions are usually closed.) All along, though, the biological father has been second fiddle to the birth mom.
“Until the 1970s, unmarried birth dads were not necessarily parents, legally, and their names were often left off of birth certificates or labeled ‘unknown,'” said Susan Appleton, a law professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis. “The birth mom made the adoption decisions.” Several Supreme Court decisions in the ’70s recognized birth dads. Since then, state laws have elevated their status further.
Research says “open” is healthier for everyone in the triad, but a major study, the long-term, ongoing Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project doesn’t even mention birth dads in its “key findings.” Fiction and films continuously portray them as an afterthought, too. (You may recall the birth mom, her parents and the adoptive parents in the movie “Juno.” But, do you remember the birth dad?)
More often, today’s birth dad can parent the child or participate in the adoption decision, but the burden is still on him to prove paternity. And, the calendar works against him, said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption & Permanency.
“The court takes so long to adjudicate the decision, the child is no longer an infant when a birth dad wins custody or visitation,” Pertman said. “Removing him at an older age is heart-rending, as we see in cases like Baby Richard.” (He refers to the highly publicized custody battle over Danny Kirchner, a young child whose adoption was revoked when his biological father, Otakar Kirchner, won custody in a case decided in 1995 by the Illinois Supreme Court. His adoptive parents had named him Richard.)
Complicating the matter is the advent of states’ putative (alleged) father registries, which vary widely. They appear pro-birth parent, giving the birth father a chance to register his paternity and contest adoption. In fact, their tight deadlines squeeze him out, say experts. And, because few people know the registries exist, the registration rate is low.
“Men say, ‘What am I supposed to do, register every time I have sex?'” said Kris Faasse, vice president of Bethany Christian Services, an adoption agency with offices in 36 states. “I say, ‘Ideally, yes.’ But that won’t happen.”
Now, several trends are working in the favor of biological fathers. Ninety-five percent of adoptions are open now, according to the 2012 “Openness in Adoption” report from the Donaldson Adoption Institute, based in New York. Closed-adoption triad members can find each other when the adoptee is an adult, thanks to social media, DNA-linking websites and “open records laws” that allow access to birth certificates.
One baby step at a time, the birth dad’s fate improves. Agencies such as Bethany have male social workers to talk to the dads. Advocacy groups ask school administrators to include birth father responsibilities in their sex-ed classes. Watchdog groups push for pro-birth dad laws.
“Finally, the birth dad is evolving from an obstacle (in an adoption) to a partner,” Faasse said. “More often, we see him involved in the child’s life. In the end, we all want the same thing – what’s best for the child.”
ADVICE FOR ALL INVOLVED
“Get a lawyer,” echoed adoption experts. Visit the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys to find one who knows adoption law. In addition, follow these tips from the trenches:
FOR THE BIRTH DAD
– Young birth dads need to tell their parents about the pregnancy. “We regret hiding it,” said Darrick Rizzo, 37, a birth dad living in Pennsylvania and author of “The Open Adoption: A Birth Father’s Journey,” speaking of his own experience. “We should have had their guidance.”
– “Avoid conflict (put three exclamation marks here) with the birth mom,” advised Joseph Cordell, a Creve Coeur, Mo.-based family law attorney. “She can make this difficult for you by saying you’re not the father. When there’s a conflict, the birth mom wins.”
– If the birth mom is married to another man, many courts consider him the father.
– Yes, DNA tests can prove paternity. No, results are not immediate like on TV.
– “Join birth parent groups for help and support,” said Jon Klaren, 45, of San Diego, a birth dad and member of Concerned United Birthparents.
– If you lose contact with the child, join the father registries in your state and in nearby states, and on the one maintained by the ALMA Society (Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association).
– You have the right to know about the birth of the child, but not necessarily the right to be part of his or her upbringing. If the pregnancy is the result of rape, or if you have a history of abuse or violence, the courts can exclude you from the child’s life. The laws vary from state to state, but judges rule on the basis of what’s best for the child.
FOR THE BIRTH MOM
– “Don’t shut out the birth dad,” Faasse said. “The child has a right to have a relationship with him.”
– Before you decide to parent the child yourself, be realistic about your capabilities. Can you provide your child with food, shelter, love and guidance?
– Don’t use the child to hurt the birth dad you no longer like.
FOR THE ADOPTIVE PARENTS
– Beware of a birth mom who is unwilling to name the birth dad. It may be because he wants paternity rights or visitation. “Sometimes the birth mother says the pregnancy resulted from rape to cover her indiscretions,” said Marie Anderson, an ALMA coordinator. Enlist an experienced social worker, who can talk to the birth mom; if it is discovered that the birth mom was not raped, he or she also can help convince her to come clean so the word “rape” is not on your child’s paperwork forever.
– “Don’t buy into the myth that birth parents want to snatch your baby,” Faasse said. “They made an adoption plan because they cannot parent the child.”
– “Don’t promise the birth parents what you can’t deliver,” Rizzo said. “You want that baby, so you say ‘yes’ to their requests. But if you don’t want them at your holiday dinner, say so.”
FOR ADULT ADOPTEES
– Recognize the possibility that your birth dad may not want to be found because he hasn’t told his wife or other kids about you.
– To find your birth parents’ families, register your DNA with 23andme.com, ancestry.com and/or familytreedna.com . “I found my birth dad’s family on ancestry.com, although he had died,” said Pam Kroskie, 47, a Bloomington, Ind., adoptee and president of Hoosiers for Equal Access to Records (HEAR). “As I met them, everything fell into place. I felt like I was filling in the blanks in my life.”
– Don’t expect your birth dad search to have a fairy tale ending. “If everything were hunky-dory with birth mom and dad, there wouldn’t have been an adoption,” Pertman said.
Leslie Mann is a freelance reporter.